The Rail Corridor: Singapore’s backyard? A connecting spine?

ArchiFest Public Forum and URA ‘Re-imagining the Rail Corridor’ Exhibition

Singapore’s newest ‘site’ continues to ignite passion and encourage debate. The former KTM railway land was discussed at length during yesterday’s ArchiFest Public (AFP) Forum. Along with the URA, Singapore’s designers and the wider community are keenly contemplating the possibilities for this unique land. The AFP Forum provided an opportunity for some of the online chatter to be aired in person. The URA did not give a presentation.

A couple of concepts emerged that resonated strongly (at least with me). The idea of regional connectivity as a shaper of rail corridor interventions is perhaps the most poignant. This idea was mentioned and alluded to by some of the speakers and reinforced by ‘Herbert’ – a member of the audience. Contributing to a surprisingly lengthy Q&A session at the end of the forum, Herbert aptly pointed out that many maps of Singapore fail to show neighbouring countries, instead illustrating Singapore as an isolated island. Neighbourly connections, he suggested, could be the story of the KTM land, informing interventions and art installations, and at the same time reinforcing history and place. He made a valid point.

The lovely idea of a green rail corridor as a ‘backyard’ for the residents of Singapore (the ‘front yard’ being the Gardens by the Bay) was also raised during the forum. This idea apparently first emerged during the ‘Re-imagining the Rail Corridor’ workshop, held on 8 October (which I didn’t attend).

Now for more detail …

The ArchiFest Public Forum was organised by the Singapore Institute of Architects and held at the National Library Building on the morning of Sunday 9 October 2011. The forum did not set out to discuss specific concepts for the KTM railway land, but rather, ideas and possibilities.

Speakers included Dr Lai Chee Kien (Assistant Professor, Department of Architecture, NUS), Dr Shawn Lum (President, Nature Society Singapore), Tobias Baur (Director of Atelier Dreiseitl), Seah Chee Huang (SIA council member and Chairman of ArchiFest Organising Committee), and Dr Tan Beng Kiang (Deputy Head, School of Design and Environment, NUS).

A Q&A session was moderated by Kelley Cheng (Editorial Director of Singapore Architect magazine and Founder/Creative Director of The Press Room). The forty-odd-strong audience seemed to consist of people from the architecture/design community and the general public.

I found Dr Lai Chee Kien’s presentation, titled ‘Railway Heritage in Singapore,’ rich and illuminating of the past and present. With the aid of a wonderful set of historic images, he revealed how:
–       the Singapore rail line was once heavily used on Sundays by Singapore residents heading to gambling dens in Johor Bahru (with ferry transfers between Woodlands and JB)
–       Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Ipoh were three of the main stations on the line, offering hotel accommodation
–       On the Malaya Peninsula, the line’s location near the west coast allowed for proximity to rubber estates
–       Hindu temples along the Singapore line catered to Tamil labourers
–       Duxton Plain Park is a remnant of an earlier branch of the Singapore line (hence the topography of the park today)
–       The original Singapore line was deviated from Bukit Timah southwards due to flooding in the Orchard Road section of the line

Dr Shawn Lum presented ‘Perspectives from Nature’s Viewpoint,’ emphasising the ecological value of connected nature areas. He asked the audience to think of the nature areas near the KTM land (including the unprotected Clementi forest) as ‘islands.’ General ecological rules suggest that large, interconnected, and topographically heterogeneous islands will support more species than smaller, distant, homogenous ones.

The KTM land, said Dr Lum, offers the potential to create clusters of habitats along its length. Habitats along the rail corridor could link with existing surrounding nature areas to create a chain of habitats encouraging pollination and migration across a substantial area. He highlighted the possibilities inherent in management for biodiversity.

Tobias Baur alluded to the landscape architecture opportunities of the rail corridor (and the possibilities that could arise by linking with waterways) via a selection of international projects. These included the Sagrea Linear Park (Barcelona), concepts for Kaohsiung Port Station (Kaohsiung), Solar City (Linz), Zoll Hallenplatz (Frieburg), Tanner Springs Park (Portland), and Bishan Park (Singapore).

Seah Chee Huang presented five adaptive reuse projects – the High Line (New York), Cheonggyecheon (Seoul), Kraanspoor (Amsterdam), Tate Modern (London), and the London Old Gas Cylinders and Shunt Lounge.

Dr Tan Beng Kiang showed preliminary student work from an architecture studio at NUS, which is also currently on display at the URA. The ‘Rail Ideas’ project aims to emphasise the rail corridor as a connector for heritage, nature, mobility, communities, and education. Dr Tan pointed out that 1.12 million people live within 2km of the rail corridor. Among the student ideas were a food village, a skate park, a farmer’s market, a bicycle hub, and an edu-farm.

Dr Tan shared a great stop-motion-style video compiled by NUS students called ‘Operation KTM Street View.’ It’s composed of shots taken every 10m along the rail corridor.

The Re-imagining the Rail Corridor exhibition at the URA Atrium presents student concepts (from various design schools), information about the corridor, and a handful of concepts from professional designers. FARM, for example, proposed a gigantic seesaw for pedestrians sited within an existing bridge. FARM described it as “a whole new way to ‘ride’ the old railway tracks.” Sounds fun.

More info about the Rail Corridor here and  here.

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